Comparison of Cajun and Standard French

                   

                                                                      CAJUN PESSIMISM

A story my father told me in French countless times gives graphic evidence of the proclivity for pessimism among some Cajuns. The origin of this story is not clear, but perhaps other families may have shared it.

A Cajun farmer was planting his corn one beautiful spring morning when a neighbor walked by and cheerfully said, “I see you are taking advantage of this wonderful day to plant your corn.”

The farmer said, “yes, but it’s all for nothing because the crows will come and eat my seeds.”

A few weeks went by, and as the farmer was hoeing his beautiful stand of corn, the neighbor came by and announced, “I see that the crows didn’t eat your seed; you have a wonderful stand of corn.”

The farmer replied in an even voice, “Yes, but the hail will come down and cut down my young corn stalks.”

More time elapsed and the corn was up in tassels. The neighbor passed by again and joyfully exclaimed, “Surely, you will have a good crop; just look at those beautiful tassels.”

The farmer, with a dour voice said, “Yes, but I’m afraid it won’t rain anymore, and my corn will dry up and die.”

Some weeks later the corn had matured to full sized ears, and the neighbor walking by again excitedly said, “You really got it made now; look at those beautiful ears.”

Still not optimistic, the farmer replied, “Yes, but the caterpillars will invade my patch and destroy my crop.”

The caterpillars did not come, and the corn was dried and ready to be harvested when the neighbor came by again.  He jubilantly shouted, “Just look at your corn; it’s ready to be harvested. You have nothing to worry about.”

Unimpressed, the farmer said, “See those dark clouds? I’m afraid the rains will come and rot my corn.”

The rains did not come and the farmer harvested a bountiful crop which he stored in his corn crib. The neighbor came by again and triumphantly exclaimed; “Now certainly you have succeeded because your corn is now safe and sound in your crib.”

To this, the pessimistic farmer replied, “Yes, but now the mites will eat my corn in the crib before I can use it.”

By Sidney P. Bellard, author of A Cajun In France

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                                        SO, YOU WANT TO LEARN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE

Learning another language provides many attributes. International travel is much easier if you know at least a little of your destination’s language. Driving is vastly easier and safer even with a rudimentary knowledge of a country’s language. Just a few words will get you better service in the restaurants, stores, and markets. Also important, you will return home with a lot more satisfaction from your vacation. Finally, some research indicates that bilingualism improves brain function and may provide protection against memory loss in later life.

While many Americans would like to learn another language, relatively few of them do. The main obstacles are the amount of time, expense, and work necessary to learn a new language. We often hear of “picking up a new language.” Unless you are very talented for languages, or a child of a bilingual family, or a family who spends extended time abroad, hard and consistent work is required to master a new language. However, the good news is that most people can achieve success through persistence and hard work.

If you want to learn a language, the first step is to determine the language you want to learn. Here are some common reasons for choosing a certain language: 1. If you already speak and understand a little of a certain language, then you may want to study that language. 2. If your parents spoke a foreign language, you may want to choose theirs. 3. Your job may require you to learn a language. 4. Some travelers choose the language of their vacation destination. 5. Some choose the language of their ancestors. 6. One whose spouse speaks a foreign language may want to learn that language.

Incidentally, if you have children or grandchildren, I would recommend placing them in a total immersion school. By the time the child reaches 6th grade, they will be bilingual and usually outscore their non-immersion peers in English skills. Their employment potential will increase dramatically when they later enter the job market. Some parents of immersion students learn the language also – a family project. However, the children will usually learn the language a lot faster than the parents will as children are programmed to learn languages.

Techniques

A huge advantage in language study today is that there are so many options in learning materials and techniques. My first French course in high school offered only a textbook and teacher instruction. Later, language labs were added and workbooks for exercises. The advent of the electronic age of computers, tablets, cell phones, and interactive programs greatly increased learning options.

Here are some of the many learning choices available today:

Do not overlook classes as many learners achieve more in a group situation. Classes are especially effective for learning pronunciation skills. In Louisiana, most high school students take two years of a foreign language. Community colleges often offer adults conversational language courses during evening hours.

  1. There are many free, online courses available, as well as correspondence courses.
  2. Foreign study courses in the country that speaks the language you want to learn. This is very effective, but rather expensive.
  3. You can download dictionaries of your language choice to your computer, tablet and cell phone.
  4. Tons of free apps are available to learn vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar as well as translations. Load them to your cell phone.
  5. Watch foreign movies with subtitles. This works best after you have acquired some proficiency in the language.
  6. Music is a very effective learning medium. Purchase the type of music you prefer in your preferred language. Choose artists with clear, distinct pronunciation that is not obscured by the music. Then go online to download and copy the lyrics of the songs. Play the music as you read the lyrics at the same time. Repeat often. This is very effective. Play music in your vehicle as you drive to reinforce learning.
  7. Spend a lot of time with conversation and pronunciation, as this is what you need most often when you visit your foreign country.
  8. Set your WordPerfect Spell-check program to the language you are studying. This is an excellent method to learn spelling as you type.
  9. Do a home exchange with a family who speaks the language you want to learn. This is like a mini-immersion in the language.
  10. Host an exchange student who speaks the language you are learning.
  11. Once you are proficient, you will need to maintain your new language by reading, talking, meeting with groups. Additionally, if possible, visiting the country of your language would also be very beneficial.

13. If you want to learn French, subscribe to France Magazine. This magazine offers interesting articles on all aspects of France as well as great photography.

by Sidney P. Bellard, author of  A Cajun in France

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                        The Differences between Cajun and Standard French Languages

My first language was Cajun French, started learning English in first grade (still working on it), and later perfected my standard French. I have often been asked, “What are the differences between Cajun and Standard French?” At this point, I am inclined to ask, “How much time do you have.”

When I was growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, I was often told that Cajun French was not really French and not even a language by persons who were less than linguistic experts. This was completely inaccurate and demeaning.  Cajun verb forms were well developed despite its speakers not having instruction or education in the language. Our verb forms were almost identical to Standard French. We had past, present, future tenses, as well as the conditional tense, perfect tenses, progressive tense and even a little of the subjunctive tense. Additionally, modifiers are usually placed after the word modified just as in Standard French. Finally, Cajuns and French nationals can understand each other if each speaker slows down a little. Comprehension depends a lot of the topic of discussion. If the topic is of daily activities and family matters, comprehension will be good. But if the topic is technical or medical, conversation will be difficult.

There are however, many differences in the two languages, most of which were caused by the Cajuns being isolated and separated from continental French since the 18th century. Even when the Cajuns, then called Acadians, were in Nova Scotia, there was limited involvement with French nationals. When the Acadians came to Louisiana, again, most had little contact with French nationals. The result was that the French language evolved (all languages evolve) and Cajun French evolved into another direction. The Cajuns adopted new words necessary to live in a completely different environment. Words of the Spanish, English, and Indian neighbors began to creep into the Cajun language. Additionally, some of the words the Cajuns used were archaic French words which had been modernized in France. Some Cajun words were the same as French, but pronounced differently and sometimes the article of a word was included in its pronunciation. In other instances, an indirect object, which comes before the verb in French, became part of the verb. (Example: I love her = “Je l’aime” in French — thus “aime” became “laime” for some Cajun speakers.

It is important to understand that not all Cajuns spoke exactly the same, but they all understood each other and noted the differences of other Cajun speakers. The eastern Cajuns in Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes shaped their language to describe their geographical area of marshes and coastal areas where fishing, shrimping and trapping were common occupations. Western Cajuns were usually farmers and cattlemen which required certain terminology. Ironically, popular Cajun music was developed primarily by western Cajuns. My personal theory is that farmers had more free time to develop the music.

Finally, some families had some distinctive differences in their language. I personally knew an extended family that did not roll the “r” in French. They used an anglicized “r,” yet they knew little or no English. Incidentally, Cajuns generally roll their “r” at the tip of the tongue (like the Spanish “r”) while the French generally roll their “r” from the back of the tongue. Also, there was a small town near mine where Cajuns and Blacks spoke French flavored with Haitian constructions.

During my French studies, my classmates often told me, “This class is easy for you because you already spoke French.” Well, yes and no. Certainly, I brought to the course a sizable vocabulary of French words, good fluency and pronunciation, but I had to “edit out” some Cajun words which were not part of the French vocabulary. Then there was the grammar and the almost impossible French verbs. So, I had to work my butt off like the rest of the class.

                                                                                      by Sidney P. Bellard, author of a Cajun in France

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                                                            When French Met English

In the 1980’s and 90’s, I taught a conversational French course for adults at Delgado Community College in New Orleans. Many of my students were professionals, such as teachers, doctors, lawyers, and others who wanted to learn French for a variety of reason such as for vacation purposes, their parents had spoken the language and others just wanted something to do. At our first class meeting, I explained what we were going to learn and offered tips on learning a new language. To provide some encouragement, I told them, “French is an easy language to learn because almost half of the words you speak now are of French origin.” The students, none of whom believed a word I said, all had an incredulous look on their faces. I continued, “Yes, every word you speak that ends in ‘tion,’ ‘sion,’ ‘ion’ and many others are of French/Latin origins and often have the same meanings in English and French. For example, the words institution, imitation, condition, compression, impression and thousands of others are the same in French and English. Of course pronunciations are different.”

Unfortunately, there was not enough time to go back over 800 years to finish the above line of thought—after all, this was a French class, not a history class. Had this been a history class, I would have continued by discussing the dramatic and historic meeting of the French and English languages.

During the 11th century, France and England were not the unified countries with well-defined borders that we know today. In England, the language was not the English we know. It was mostly a Germanic language. On January 6, 1066, Harold II began his rule as King of England. He would be the last of the Anglo-Saxon Kings.

Powerful Lords fought to rule various areas of France. The Normans, who were formerly Vikings, settled in Northeast France and assimilated into the French language and culture. The leader of the Normans was the Duke of Normandy who, on September 1066, launched his invasion of England. On October 14, 1066, The Duke of Normandy defeated King Harold II in the battle of Hastings. The victory was complete as the Duke’s army killed King Harold and took complete control of England. That would be the last successful invasion of England. The Duke would later assume the title of “William the Conqueror.”

William and his forces of 8000 knights and soldiers completely subjugated and controlled England’s population of 1.27 million. The face and language of England would change forever. The French Normans set the pace politically, socially, administratively and culturally. So thorough was the defeat that the language of the English nobility and most others of consequence became French. English nobles who hoped to gain titles, power and influence learned French and played by the rules of the French invaders. Indeed, extinction threatened the very existence of the English language.

Ironically, the common English peasants came to the rescue of English. They had no reason to learn French and continued to speak English in their daily lives. Additionally, they overwhelmingly outnumbered the Normans. The process took almost 300 years, but English prevailed. It would eventually become the world’s dominant language.

However, the English that prevailed was not the same one the peasants saved. Thousands of French words had invaded the King’s language, and that was a good thing. English, being Germanic, was a rather harsh language. The addition of the French words softened some of that harshness. Additionally, the infusion of the French words made the language more expressive and made English one of the world’s languages with the largest vocabulary. Finally, it made French easier to learn for English speakers.

                                                                An Interesting Parallel

In Louisiana, Many Cajuns in the mid 20th century began to become educated, achieve upward mobility and drop the Cajun-French language and culture. Other Cajuns stayed on the farm, many as sharecroppers and some worked manual labor jobs or remained fishermen and trappers. These Cajuns continued utilizing their language and native culture. Thanks to these people, we still have some French spoken in Louisiana today, and they preserved traditions in music, cuisine, and customs. In a sense, they have defined Louisiana.

How interesting and ironic that two cultures 800 years and an ocean apart, the English peasants and poorer Cajuns were responsible for the preservation of a language and a culture. Unfortunately, these propagators paid a heavy price—many years of continued poverty and marginal existence.

By Sidney P. Bellard, author of A Cajun in France